The hands don’t work like they used to, or like they should, but that doesn’t stop him from picking up the Sun Sentinel from the glass top table every morning and going straight to the sports section. Ira Winderman is his favorite writer. He calls him “My friend Ira” and reads every one of his stories. At night he watches the Heat play, usually on the small TV in the dining room of his second floor condo in Century Village, an aptly named retirement community in South Florida. During the day he tries to watch as much ESPN as he can. He loves Mike and Mike, thinks Stephen A. Smith is brilliant and finds Skip Bayless highly irritating. “I think he’s an actor,” he says. It took him about two viewings of First Take to figure this out.
Smart man, my Popi, 94 years old and still sharper than the majority of ESPN’s audience.
It all started around six years ago. I’m not exactly sure how or why. My suspicion is that his fandom originally arose out of a desire to connect with me and my younger brother. At least that’s what I’ve always thought—that basketball provided him with a way to bond with us. I also assumed that the games served as a good distraction, given that the majority of his time and energy is now spent trying to complete mundane tasks—going to the bathroom, getting out of bed, traveling from room to room—that in his old age have become arduous.
I’ve asked my mom, Popi’s youngest child, what she thinks about her father’s obsession with the Miami Heat. She mostly agrees with me but also says I’m leaving something out: that Popi’s newfound fandom has been a reaction to his deteriorating physical state. That since he could no longer play any tennis—a sport that he loves and played into his eighties—he needed something else to do with his free time.
Whatever the reasons, today Popi is a man completely infatuated with the Miami Heat and the NBA. He loves LeBron James and thinks Pat Riley is as brilliant and majestic an executive there ever was. And of course there’s Micky Arison, the team’s Israeli owner who, in Popi’s eyes, can do no wrong.
“It keeps me going,” Popi likes to say of his fandom, and for that, and so much more, I have Pat, Mickey, LeBron and the rest of the Heat to thank.
* * *
July 9, 2010. When I call Popi I can hear the ecstasy in his voice. With him you can always tell what kind of mood he’s in the second he says “hello” and today he sounds ebullient. It’s as happy as I can remember hearing him in a while. Last night was “The Decision” and now seemingly 99 percent of the country despise LeBron James. Not South Florida, though, to whom LeBron has instantaneously become a hero—and one who can do no wrong.
“Let me ask you,” Popi says, “Wouldn’t you rather play with your friends and for guys like Pat and Mickey, and not that schmuck in Cleveland?” Popi is referencing the rage-filled comic sans E-mail that Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sent out last night following LeBron’s announcement that he would be leaving Cleveland’s bitter cold for South Beach’s sand and sun. In it Gilbert vowed that the Cavs would win a Championship before “the self-titled former King.” Popi writes this screed off as angry drivel, the senseless words of a scorned lover.
A few months later the season begins and Gilbert, for a brief moment, looks prophetic. The star-laden Heat loses eight of its first 17 games. Popi, like the rest of the basketball world, is perplexed. “I think they need a psychologist,” he says when I speak to him early in the season. It’s a sentiment he repeats often that year. “It makes no sense that these guys can play one way one night and another way a different night.”
Eventually Miami figures things out. The Heat goes on to win 58 games that season and makes it all the way to the Finals, though Popi thinks the team was a bit lucky because “that guy Rondo on the Celtics got hurt. Boy is he something.”
It turns out he was right. Miami winds being upset by the Dallas Mavericks and falling in six games. LeBron averages less than 18 points per contest, a eight-point drop-off from his season average. Worse, he looks passive and terrified as the games go on, even when the Mavericks slot the diminutive JJ Barea onto him.
The Heat’s season ends on a Thursday night in Miami. Chris Bosh cries on his way back to the locker room. Some fans leave the game early. Others boo.
The next day Popi sounds dumbfounded.
“I told you, buddy,” he says. “These guys need a psychologist.”
* * *
Popi and I speak over the phone every Friday. It’s been a tradition of ourss for about seven years now and is one of the highlights of my week. We talk about all sorts of things—what kind of pastrami the Boca Raton kosher deli is serving, the latest scandal involving a Rabbi, how Pepsi’s stock is doing—but for the most part we discuss the NBA.
The routine started when I was 17 and living in Israel for a year. Prior to leaving my parents suggested I start calling my grandparents every Friday prior to Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath). “It would make them really happy,” they said, “it’d be really nice.”
Reluctantly I took their advice. Every Friday morning I’d take a break from whatever I was doing and give them a call. Except I never actually took a break. Instead, I’d plan the phone call around tedious chores. If I had shirts to iron, that’d be when I picked up the phone. Walks to the supermarket became ideal times as well.
I was a grandson calling his grandparents because I was supposed to. My relationship with my grandfather was mostly physiological, the result of us sharing the same blood.
Today these weekly conversations are different. They often become the highlights of my week. When it all started I looked at these calls as me doing a favor for Popi. Now I frequently hang up the phone feeling as if he’s done one for me.
On Fridays now I allot an hour to speak to him. No multi-tasking. Sometimes the conversations don’t last very long; at this point it seems like the list of Popi’s body parts which are functioning properly is shorter than the list of those not and so there are times when he feels sort of lifeless. But “I’m not complaining, I’m not complaining” he likes to say, and repeat, again and again, and when the Heat wins he rarely does.
* * *
June 8, 2012. I know this call is going to be a fun one. LeBron scored 45 points last night in Boston and looked unstoppable in a dazzling, critic-quieting performance. He helped the Heat, which was down 3-2, stave off elimination, and possibly a complete demolition of the Big Three blueprint that Pat Riley so brilliantly put together just two years ago. My grandmother, Vivian, five years younger than Popi and his wife of 67 years, answers the phone.
Usually my phone conversations with Nani are quick. “How are you feeling?” she asks. “Good,” I say. “Any new developments in your life that I should know about?” she responds. “Not that I can think of,” I answer. “OK, have a good Shabbos. I’ll let you and Popi talk.” Today, though:
“Wasn’t that game something?” she says. “So exciting, the best I’ve ever seen him play.” She and Popi watched the game last night together on the TV in their bedroom before going to sleep. The commercials that come with a nationally televised broadcast, which this was, pushed the game later into the night and so they had to watch in bed.
I’m a Knicks fan at heart but I now find myself occasionally rooting for the Heat. It makes Popi happy and so it makes me happy. When the Heat beat the Thunder in the Finals later this month I feel as if I’ve won as well.
A few weeks after the season I receive a letter in my mailbox. When my basketball chats with Popi first started I was the one educating him—on the rules, some of the game’s X’s and O’s, player backgrounds. One time late last summer Popi called asking what “the post” was. He had read that LeBron was working on his “post game” after losing to the Mavericks and wanted to know what that meant.
Now Popi has started cutting out basketball articles from the Sun Sentinel and mailing them to me. He especially likes those focusing on the business of sports. The envelope I open on this day is a story breaking down the Heat’s current salary cap situation. Before I can finish reading it Popi calls to ask if I received any mail.
“I’m looking at the article you sent me now,” I say. He then proceeds to explain its contents to me and what the Heat would need to do in order to ink Ray Allen, who a month later signs with the team.
* * *
Solomon D.— he always adds the D—Rosen worked in the Bronx County court system for nearly 30 years and retired as the jury clerk of the Bronx County Supreme Court. Ask him and he’ll tell you how imperative it was for him to be a “people person” while working there, how that was one of the skills that allowed him to succeed. That, and hard work. “Lots and lots of hard work.”
After graduating from Stuyvesant High School in the late ’30s he got a job at his father’s fur business. He worked there during the day and at night took classes at St. John’s University. But enlisted in the Army before finishing school.
After World War II, he completed his courses and earned a joint bachelor’s and law degree. Then he became a social worker for the city of New York. Then there was a job with the Office of Price Administration, then the Army Audit Agency. Somewhere in there he got married, moved into an apartment in Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and had a kid. But he also wanted more. That meant night school at Baruch so he could get his MBA.
Four decades later, at the age of 64, Popi retired. He and my grandmother sold their Pelham Parkway house—which they moved into after having their third child, my mom—and began splitting their time between Century Village and the Catskills.
For Popi, there’s a way to do things in life and a way not to do things. In his mind the team he’s fallen in love with follows the former. “Name me another team that has gotten so many guys to take pay-cuts,” he likes to say. “Only them. It’s like a family. They take care of each other.”
* * *
August 6, 2013. Popi has now become an erudite basketball fan. He can “name”—with his 94-year-old memory there’s “naming” and naming; sometime Rajon Rondo turns into “That guy Rambo”—coaches and give his own scouting reports. I’m visiting him in Century Village. His dark grey hair is slicked back and he’s wearing a short-sleeve plaid shirt tucked into khaki shorts. The high white socks are pulled up like always (maybe he’s a secret Keith Van Horn fan). He’s sitting in his wheelchair. On his desk I see Phil Jackson’s latest book, Eleven Rings, lying on top of a stack of papers. He says he likes more than the Shaquille O’Neal’s biography he read last year. Next to Jackson’s book is the black, flat-rimmed Miami Heat championship hat that Popi now uses to shield his eyes from the bright Florida sun.
Mentally, Popi is as sharp as he ever was, at least that’s what my mom tells me. At this moment he’s explaining why he’s worried about the Heat’s chance of “three-peating”—a phrase that he makes sure to inform me was patented by “Pat.” He’s also been using his recently developed Internet skills to do some research on Dwayne Wade’s injured knees. “I read that he’s been switching between hot and cold on his knee,” Popi says, “so I asked my doctor about that to see if it makes sense.” I’m pretty sure he adds that he’s now using that routine on his knees as well.
Later that summer Pat comes through for Popi again by signing the talented yet troubled Michael Beasley. It’s a move Popi really likes. “Thank God Pat had rachmanis (a Yiddish word meaning sympathy) on him,” he says to me one Friday afternoon over the phone. Throughout the year Popi will ask me why I think Beasley isn’t playing. He then goes on a rant about how, in his opinion, the Heat will miss having assistant coach Keith Askins, who is now serving as a team scout, sitting on the bench during games.
While listening I use Google to look up who Keith Askins is.
Eight months later the Heat are gearing up for an Eastern Conference Finals rematch with the Indiana Pacers. Popi is a little concerned. He thinks Miami would have preferred to play the Wizards because they’re so young. He also doesn’t like Roy Hibbert because of “that time he hit LeBron in the throat. That was a dirty, dirty play.”
The last time we had an in depth conversation about the Pacers was four month ago, when they were looking like a team that could, come playoff time, possibly be favored in a series against the Heat. “You guys picked the Pacers,” he said to me back then, referring to SLAM’s NBA preview issue, “but after watching these games I don’t know. That George is a top guy now and that Hibbert is something, but don’t count out LeBron and Erik.”
“But what about LeBron yelling at Chalmers?” I asked him, in jest. A few days earlier ESPN’s cameras caught James and Mario Chalmers getting into a heated altercation on the bench during game against Indiana. “That whole thing, that’s nothing,” he said. “I read a Tweet that LeBron wrote after the game. He said he and Chalmers were brothers and that he was wrong. That’s why LeBron’s so great. He apologized. Find me another star who would do that.”
* * *
Monday, June 16. Popi is not happy with Erik Spoelstra. That who’s getting the blame for Heat’s Finals loss to the Spurs, a series where, for the first time since LeBron migrated down to Miami, his Heat looked to be completely overmatched. It’s not a Friday but I figured today is a good day to give Popi a ring. He wants to know why Spoelstra continued playing Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, and why he never gave “JJ” (James Jones) a chance to make some threes, and why Beasley was kept on the bench the whole series until the end. “He did the same thing with the guy with the small beard,” he says, referring to Rashard Lewis, “and then he put him in and he played well. Why not do that with Beasley?
“I don’t think Pat gave him enough tips this series.”
Popi then moves on to LeBron. He thinks he’ll come back to Miami but he’s worried about Houston. Not Cleveland, though, because “no way he forgot what that guy (Dan Gilbert) said about him.”
He also feels bad for Dwyane Wade. “He’s a sick man,” he says. Over the past few years “sick” has replaced “hurt” when discussing athlete injuries. “I know what that’s like to have the bum knees, it’s hard. He’s not coming back from this. Maybe he’ll retire and take a job in the front office like that guy with the kidneys did.”
“Yeah, you know, the big guy.”
He’s talking about Alonzo Mourning.
We talk for about 30 minutes. Popi praises Kawhi Leonard’s “guts,” Gregg Poppovich’s handling of the media—“What, he should tell them what strategy he’s going to do?”—and says “my guy Stephen A. thinks Miami can come back because the East is so weak.” It’s a fun chat. I think me calling him on a different day caught him a bit off guard and now he’s talking about all types of things, and the conversation takes a slight turn. “I wish I could get up to New York to visit you guys more,” he says at one point. My younger brother is getting married in November and Popi just recently informed us that he’s not going to be able to make the trip up north for the wedding. His body can’t handle the traveling. Now he sounds like he’s holding back tears, just for a few seconds.
Eventually the conversation turns back to the Heat. It always does.
“Maybe I’ll get some time to relax now,” he says. “You know, I get so involved in that stuff. It’s good for me, keeps me busy and going, but maybe now I can follow my stocks more. At least until the maneuvering starts, then I’ll have to start following again—we got a lot of big decisions coming up.
“When’s the day they select the college kids they want?”
A version of this story original appeared in Tablet Magazine in December 2013.